Residents of southern Colorado's San Luis Valley are now reacting to news that 144,000 acres of federal land will go on the auction block May 8.
"I think we're the last hurrah," says Pauline Washburn, an activist from Del Norte, 180 driving miles southwest of Colorado Springs.
Most leases are for mineral rights under the hilly country around Del Norte, a landscape now dominated by forest and cattle-grazed grasslands. Smaller parcels flank Crestone, an arts and spiritual community where many residents are battling plans to drill test wells on Baca National Wildlife Refuge, which is adjacent to their town and to Great Sand Dunes National Park (see "Disturbing the peace," Oct. 4, 2007).
Dale Wiescamp, a Del Norte real estate broker and San Luis Valley native, says news of the proposed sales "dropped on us like a ton of bricks."
"We don't know how to handle something like this," he says, emphasizing concern about potential conflicts between drillers and ranchers and possible contamination of the valley's crucial aquifers. "We're the last of the pristine areas left."
The Bureau of Land Management holds auctions in Colorado four times a year to lease subsurface rights owned by the government, usually for land managed by the BLM or Forest Service, plus some private land. Since 2000, the BLM has offered between 220,000 and more than 600,000 acres for lease each year.
Protests, once rare, are now the norm as western Colorado communities such as Rifle and Silt wrestle with oil and gas development. The controversy about plans to drill on the Roan Plateau has generated national stories.
Members of the industry can essentially request leases be sold for any federal mineral holding they believe might contain oil and gas. The BLM or Forest Service then reviews these requests to see if they fit with management plans.
Around Del Norte, 70,000 acres up for lease carry no rights to use the surface; energy companies would have to drill from the edges.
Another complication of drilling and even looking for oil and gas around Del Norte is the presence of volcanic rocks in the area.
Melody Holm, the Forest Service's regional program manager for leasable minerals, says these very hard rocks can block seismic waves, making it tricky for geologists to "see" any oil and gas layers that might lurk below.
With that uncertainty and the rugged terrain, there's always the chance energy companies will pass up on leases in the San Luis Valley, which sell for a minimum of $2 an acre.
Washburn and others refuse to simply take that chance. Nearly 100 people showed up last week for an informational meeting on the proposed leases. Washburn helped form the Rio Grande County Oil and Gas Accountability Alliance, which together with other groups in the area is hosting a public forum Thursday.
Drilling could bring noise, traffic and dust to the area as an untold number of workers transform the hillsides with pads for new wells, Washburn says.
She speaks quietly about the implications: "It would change our lifestyle."